Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Working in Memphis: A Documentary (Part 2)

Vince Johnson of the Plantation AllStars
So, I promised to update you readers occasionally on the progress of the documentary film that my student Sophie Osella and I are shooting this summer about working Memphis musicians... but, to be honest, I've barely had a free moment to do so.  As I said in the previous post about this project, our tight schedule and our subject matter has made for very long days and very late nights of filming.  For the last couple of weeks anyway, I've been working pretty much 24/7, dividing my time between the regular writing/research that my "day" job requires and the work that this film requires.  For the record, I've been doing my "regular" (Philosophy) work from about 7am until roughly 3pm-ish every day.  The back-end of my regular workday depends mostly on when our filming schedule starts for any given day, which is rarely before 2pm, but I've had to be really self-disciplined about when my "regular" workday starts.  The really difficult part about that self-disciplined start-time has been that our filming schedule quite often goes well past midnight, sometimes as late as 4am, so I trust you can imagine how cloudy some of those 7am start-times feel for a philosopher who needs to be thinking very clearly.  Anyway, Sophie and I are very quickly running-up on the time when we need to stop filming and lock ourselves in the editing room, which means that the last ten days (since my last update) have been insanely busy as we try to get every last bit of footage that we need. The good news is that, apart from some mostly-expected and arguably-unavoidable audio issues, almost everything we have is looking and sounding really amazing.  For the last week, we've spent most of our time in interviews, which has been much easier to manage (technically) than filming live performances and, in a pleasantly surprising way, has been every bit as enjoyable. 

Brad Birkedahl and The Burnin' Love Band
This week of filming has given us some of our best-- and worst-- documentary film-making experiences so far.  As everyone with any sense prefers, I'll give you the bad news first.  Two less-than-ideal things that I've been expecting and basically waiting to happen, but hadn't happened yet, finally came to pass this week: (1) Sophie and I got kicked out of a place where we were trying to shoot footage, and (2) we had our first subject pull out of the film.  I won't name the place or the person involved the above snafus because we're still operating for the most part on people's generosity and good graces, but I will say that neither of these "bad" experiences were all that devastating for our project.  We've had extremely good luck so far (knock on wood!) being able to come and go pretty much as we please, which is no small accomplishment considering our filming environment.  As I said before, we're operating on precisely ZERO budget-- we've paid all of the expenses out of our own pockets so far, including big expenses (like lens/equipment rentals) and all the "extraneous" small expenses that add up to be, in aggregate, very large expenses (mostly band, doormen and bartender tips), and that one could never include on a actual expense report-- so paying the musicians and performers in our documentary has been, from the get-go, completely impossible.  We've done an extremely good job, in my opinion, winning the trust, confidence and support of the people on Beale Street so far, and it helps that everyone who has participated has done so for the same reason that we're doing this film, that is, for the love of Memphis music.  I'd say at this point that most of the bartenders, servers and doormen on Beale Street know us, ALL of the performers/artists on Beale Street know us and, with maybe two exceptions, we're on solidly good terms with everyone.  Having been down there practically24/7 for over a month, we get far more solicitations than rejections at this point.  So, all things considered, I think we've had a fairly easy go of it, our two negative experiences this week notwithstanding.

Patrick Dodd
Now, to be honest, a lot of our "easy go of it" has to do with the fact that I knew almost everyone down on Beale Street when we started and, as these things are bound to happen, once we got the greenlight from a few of the performers, the word of our project spread and the rest of them came on board quickly.  But even with a lot of already-established "connections," there's still a lot of connecting to do for a project like this. We've been really fortunate that we're making a film in a town and on a street that practically overflows with not only incredible music, but an incredible amount of love, community and good will.  To wit, the interviews we got on film in the last couple of weeks have been both eye-opening and inspiring.  Patrick Dodd, Vince Johnson, Steve Newman, Brad Birkedahl, Joyce Henderson and her sister Natalie James have all been so honest, so forthcoming and sometimes so hilarious that I really can't wait for the rest of you to see them.  As I said in the previous post about this project, my one regret is that we don't have everything on film.  So many of our off-camera conversations have been the best.  I've talked a lot about this off-camera, but one of the things about Beale Street-- where most of the hardworking Memphis musicians work and keep the "legend" of Memphis music alive-- is that most Memphians don't go to Beale Street.  Every single day that we work on this project I realize again what a damn shame that is.  Our very best and most talented Memphis musical artists are keeping this city (and very large part of this city's economy) alive by grinding it out day and night on Beale Street. 

MEMPHIANS:  Seriously, as one of you, let me just say that you NEED to go downtown and check out what we have more often.  Beale Street is NOT just a "tourist trap."  It's an absolutely perfect concentration of everything that Memphis music is and has ever been. Yes, it's there to make the city money and to attract tourists, but everything that is down there is our home-grown stuff.   And if you haven't availed yourself of the opportunity to drink the local musical-brew recently, you are seriously missing out.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 13: A Film With Your Least Favorite Actor

Today's is the easiest pick of the 31 Day Film Challenge by a long-shot.  I really, truly, deeply and categorically cannot stand Matt Damon.

As much as I wish I could, I cannot put a finger on exactly what it is that irks me so much about Matt Damon.  I like many, even most, of his films.  I haven't seen any of the Bourne films, because those seemed to be too much Matt Damon for me to stand, but I thought Good Will Hunting was solid and I really loved the Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen movies.  So, it's not that I think Damon makes bad films or is a particularly bad actor.  It's just something about him

For one thing, I think that Matt Damon is more or less "Matt Damon" in every single movie he makes.  So, though I don't think he's a terrible actor (like Brendan Fraser, for example), I also don't think he's a great actor... or much of an actor at all, really.  I think he's done a pretty good job of choosing roles that allow him to be the handsome, witty, slyly-funny guy of above-average intelligence that he was in Good Will Hunting and (if we are to believe what we see of him off-screen) appears to be in real life.  But, I don't know why, I just don't like that guy.  Damon practically oozes inauthenticity to me.  His charm seems rehearsed, his cleverness seems arrogant, his wit seems snarky, his vulnerability seems phony, even his smile seems artificial and synthetic.  I'm sure this is true for everyone, but there are other actors/actresses who I dislike because they remind me of some real person that I know (and also dislike) in real life.  That's not the case with Matt Damon.  He doesn't remind me of any real person in particular that I don't like.  He just reminds me of a generic "that guy" category of person that I don't like.  A kind of over-privileged, unreflective, too-full-of-himself poser.

One of my colleagues and good friends, Steve, has been pressing me to give a better explanation of my Matt-Damon-animus for a while now, ever since we were first chatting about actors/actresses we hate over happy hour drinks several months ago.  So, I'm a little embarrassed to report that, despite the fact that I've been thinking and talking about this a lot recently, I still don't have a very good account.  I just don't like Matt Damon.  Full stop.

Friday, July 12, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 12: A Film With Your Favorite Actor/Actress

So, I know I chose both a Jeff Bridges and a Coen brothers film just a couple of days ago, but I can't help it.  I'm doing it again today.

Jeff Bridges is an unlikely pick, I know, but he's definitely one of my favorite actors.  And if I'm forced (which I am today) to pick my favorite favorite, he's the first one that comes to mind.  Daniels is not just an actor, but also a musician and an artist, and he's really seen a resurgence in his career since he became the go-to actor and darling child of the Coen brothers more than decade ago.  That's well-deserved, as far as I'm concerned, because Daniels has a gift for portraying the down-and-out character like no once since... oh, I don't know, Buster Keaton?  There's something deeply sensitive and genuinely world-wise, even if also world-weary, about his demeanor and his voice that I find captivating.  His turn in The Big Lebowski established that character as a bona fide cinematic icon, and he's been around long enough to have similarly-iconic roles stretching back almost 40 years.  (Anyone remember his turn in the original King Kong?)

The performance that solidified his place among the greatest actors of all time, for me, was in the 2010 remake of True Grit by the Coen brothers. Daniels plays a drunk, brash and haphazard  U.S. Marshall whose appearance is so disheveled, whose diction is so garbled, and whose moral fiber is so frayed that he pushes right up against the edge of caricature.  But he is a character, not a caricature.  The genius with which Daniels toes the line between the hard-to-believe unbelievable and the over-the-top unbelievable is masterfully skilled and unquestionably committed.  This is what counts in my book as a genius performance.

On another day, I might've picked Al Pacino or Robert De Niro as my favorite actor.  Both Pacino and De Niro have (unfortunately) made too many poor film choices in the last 20 years, though, and have become caricatures of their former selves.  Robert Duvall is another top contender but, compared with Daniels, was too one-dimensional to make the cut.  There are plenty of younger actors that I think, given the time to complete the arc of their careers, would be excellent choices-- Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling are the best actors of my generation, I think--  but I wanted to pick someone with a longer career.  I suppose the actor with the closest approximate to Daniels' breadth and skill is probably Dustin Hoffman.  Still, in a head-to-head, I'd take Jeff Daniels. 

Also, for the record, if I were ever given one of those "who would you invite to a dinner party?" dream-questions, Daniels would definitely make my list.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 11: The Best Sports Film

About eight months ago, when I was planning the syllabus for last semester's Philosophy of Film course, I had exactly the same problem I'm having today trying to determine which is the "best" of the hundreds of truly great sports films.  Here was (and is) my dilemma:  when I think of sport as an important human activity, which I think it is, I tend to think of team sports. To the extent that sport is a useful metaphor for illustrating other, bigger and greater values-- which I think it is-- team sports tend to be uniquely effective for illustrating the manner in which we are capable of subordinating our individual selves for the sake of something cooperative or communal. To wit, great sports films that focus on individual sports like boxing (Rocky) or running (Chariots of Fire) don't quite get at the themes and values for which I think sports films are best.  Now, that's not to say that Rocky and Chariots of Fire aren't great films, which they certainly are, but only that when I think of "sports" as a genre of film, I think of that genre as accomplishing certain sorts of things that individual-sport films more often than not fall short of accomplishing. 

For my Philosophy and Film course last semester, I ended up choosing Hoosiers (1986), which more or less accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish.  If I had it to do over again, I think I'd choose something else, though I'm not sure what.  For today's pick, I tried to loosen up my overly-strict criteria for choosing among sports films, but I kept running into the same sorts of problems.  What to choose?  An "overcoming outrageous odds" story?  A "teammate/friendship" story?  A "for the love of the game" story?  A "historical" story? The more I looked for just the right pick, the more the subgenres of the sports genre seemed to multiply.

So, I'm just going with a great film.   My pick for today is The Natural (1984), starring the devastatingly handsome Robert Redford as a supernaturally-gifted, but over-the-hill, baseball player who comes out of nowhere, with a mysterious and spotty past, and makes it big in the Majors.  The Natural has some of the most beautiful scenes ever filmed, in my view, and I was very tempted to save it for Day 17 of this Challenge.  I wouldn't go to the mat arguing that this is the "best" sports film ever made, since my top ten-or-so contenders for that honor are all about equal, but it's one of the best.  And that's about the best I can do for this category.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 10: A Film From Your Favorite Director

My "favorite Director" is, technically speaking, two directors:  the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen.  Although they are separate people, of course, who have talents distinct from one another, it is still the case that most cinephiles treat them as the single entity "Coen brothers."  It was hard to pass over many in the pantheon of Great Directors and pick the Coen brothers today, but the more I thought about it, the more confident I felt in my selection of them as my favorite.  I've seen practically all of their films and can't find a real "dud" among them.  The Coen brothers' films are quirky, weird, sometimes hilarious, quite often moving and, without exception, deeply existential.  They are masterful storytellers, acute observers of the human animal, sensitive to both the comedy and the tragedy of the human situation,  brutally honest about the great and small things we do with and to one another, equally adept at both hyperbole and nuance and, perhaps above all, their films evidence a real and abiding love of cinema and its history.

The Big Lebowski (1998) is not my favorite Coen brothers' film, but it's probably their best-known and the one most indicative of their work overall.  For the record, my favorite Coen brothers' films are No Country for Old Men (2007) and their remake of True Grit (2010), two of their darker films.  What The Big Lebowski does, which is standard fare for many Coen brothers' "comedies," is take an almost unbelievably oddball character, put him in a hyperbolically oddball situation, surround him with an entourage of oddball sidekicks and antagonists, and then somehow-- voila! the magic of cinema!-- churn out a thoroughly, deeply and existentially "relatable" film.  The great genius of Coen brothers' movies is that they take the human being to be, first and foremost, a problem-solving animal.  But no matter how epic or crazy or unbelievable the problems they give their characters to solve, the Coen brothers' characters are only ever meant to solve the problem of themselves.  Sometimes they succeed in working out that puzzle, though never completely, and sometimes they fail, though never completely.  In either scenario, though, the audience leaves more puzzled with itself than when it came.  And, I'd say, better for it.

  

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 9: Best Documentary Film

As I mentioned a few days ago, I am in the process of making my first documentary film this summer, so I probably thought a good deal more about today's prompt than I otherwise might have.  There are so many different types of documentaries and the ones I like the most, I like for very different reasons.  One of the things I've learned in studying (and now filming) documentaries is that, like all texts, the people who create them are authors, not merely scribes. Storytelling in documentary film is a practiced and incredibly nuanced skill.  One doesn't just stand there with a camera and record the story unfolding, after all. 

For today's pick, I'm selecting something a little non-obvious.  I don't think I would say this is the best documentary film I've ever seen, though it's probably in the top 10, but it definitely influenced me quite a bit.  On the whole, my favorite documentary filmmakers are Errol Morris and Wener Herzog, two certifiably idiosyncratic and quirky storytellers who make films that are very,, very different than my selection for today.  The reason I didn't pick a Morris or Herzog film is twofold: first, I just couldn't choose among them and, second, the work I've been doing on my own film this summer has made me think a lot about how difficult it is to make a documentary about music.

My pick for today is Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002), which traces the role that music played in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle.  It's part historical, part cultural, part biographical, part artistic.  Given the sweeping breadth of its subject, filmmaker Lee Hirsch did an incredible job, telling the story with equal parts economy and care.  The film came out in 2002, only ten years after the release of Nelson Mandela from jail and the transition of South Africa to democracy.  The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was still in process and both apartheid and the democratic transition were still very recent memories. 

The title of the film, amandla, is the Zulu and Xhosa word for "power."  During the height of the struggle, it was a word often shouted by anti-apartheid fighters along with awethu ("to us").  The power that music lends to people when they raise their voices together in song is the story of this film.  That is an incredibly moving, incredibly inspiring and incredibly beautiful story. Hirsch does a masterful job of capturing all the beauty and all of the ugliness of this complicated story, and it remains the very first film that I recommend to people who want to learn something about South Africa's apartheid years. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 8: A Film That You Can Quote A Line From

Like a lot of other people doing the 31 Day Film Challenge, I can quote "a" line from most film's that I've seen.  I can quote several lines from all the good films I've seenSome films, like Casablanca and The Godfather and The Holy Grail, include dialogue that has embedded itself so deeply in the American consciousness that it's hard to believe that not everyone could quote a line from them. 

Here's looking at you, kid.


Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.

Bring out your dead!

Still, for most people of my generation (and younger), there are films that we can quote almost in their entirety.  My pick for today, The Princess Bride (1987), is one of that sort.   I cannot possibly count how many times I've seen this film, but I don't think it's repetitive viewing alone that has caused its script to lodge itself in my brain and stay there.  The Princess Bride has one of the cleverest, wittiest and most economically-written scripts of any movie ever.  What is more, the actor-to-character pairings in the film are SO perfect that it is practically impossible not to mimic their precise accents and delivery of the film's most well-known lines.  I'll spare you the usual plot summary today, since it's hard to believe that anyone hasn't seen The Princess Bride, so let it suffice to say this is one of the 80's great "love and adventure" stories. 

Also, instead of posting the trailer for the film, today I'm including (below) one of my favorite scenes from the film: the Death of Vizzini.  This scene is absolutely brilliantly written.  After a flurry of dizzying logic and wordplay, Vizzini pulls a rudimentary "hey, look over there!" misdirection on his arch-enemy, Wesley.  The acting in this scene is pitch-perfect, a precise concentration of the two characters pitted against one another.  The pacing of this scene is superb, generating a slowly-intensifying suspense with nothing other than a battle of wits.  And the payoff moment, when Vizzini dies, could not possibly have been written any better.  It would be inconceivable to think it could.  INCONCEIVABLE!

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Working In Memphis: A Documentary

I thought I might interrupt the 31 Day Film Challenge for a moment to update you readers on my own little adventure into film-making.  I've undertaken a project this summer that I've wanted to do for a long, long time: a documentary film about "working" Memphis musicians. For what it's worth, all the photos in this post are stills from the film. The one to your left may be my favorite so far.

First, let me give you our elevator pitch for the film.  (I've practiced it a lot.)  The pitch goes something like this:  Everyone knows that Memphis is legendary as a "music" town... but when people who aren't from Memphis think of Memphis music, they tend to think first and foremost of Elvis Presley, Al Green, and Isaac Hayes, or of the countless Stax and Sun and Hi/Royal artists who helped craft the unmistakable sound of American R&B, soul and early rock 'n roll.  BUT (and, when I'm giving this pitch, I say this "BUT..." very dramatically)... for every Elvis, Al and Isaac that Memphis has launched into stardom, there are literally thousands of Memphis musicians whose names you don't know, who never make it big, many of whom never leave this town, who grind it out playing gigs every night, sometimes as many as 300 nights a year, and who entertain millions of tourists that come here every year in search of "authenticity."  They play for very little fame and even less money, and they are the ones to be credited with keeping the legend of Memphis music alive.  The documentary we're filming this summer is about all those "other" musicians.  The ones that have played with the greats, who are themselves great, but who never became one of "the greats."  Ours is a documentary about the Memphis-music-version of what poker players call a rounder, the men and women who grind it out day and night, working in Memphis and making it work in Memphis as a musician.

[No kidding, I've said that paragraph above so many times in the last month that it's like my own private version of the Nicene Creed.]

For the last three weeks, my very talented student, Sophie Osella, and I have been shooting film for this project, my/our very first documentary film.  We're doing this at the behest of (and on the dime of) the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, a truly amazing summer program at Rhodes College, headed up by Professor Milton Moreland, which allows students and faculty to work together on independent research projects related in some way to the Memphis/Mid-South region.  Sophie and I will be working long, hard and late hours for the next three weeks to come, in hopes of getting everything we need filmed and edited before July 29, which is when we are scheduled to screen our first rough cut of the film.  For those of you who may not appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to shoot a film in 7 weeks-- and, to be honest, I was one of those people before beginning this project-- let me just say that by "incredibly difficult" I mean "damn near impossible."  But we're doing it, we're going to do it, and every day I wake up and pray to the Universe that it will get done.  Putting aside for a moment our insanely challenging timeline, we're also working with only two sets of eyes and hands, limited (but very high-quality) equipment, practically zero money, totally unpredictable weather (and subjects), and in environments that are, technically speaking, extremely difficult to navigate.  Still, I think that Sophie and I make a good pair for this project.  She's got a great eye and far more editing/camera/film-making skills than I do, and I've got all the "inside" connections and a pretty good sense of the larger narrative arc.  She shoots great film.  I get great stories.  This has a better-than-average shot a being a really good film, I think.

As it turns out, my twenty-plus years of staying up late and hanging out with musicians in Memphis has definitely payed off for this project.  I've called in a lot of favors and, as a result, we've managed to get almost all of the hardworking Memphis musicians on board for our documentary, including Joyce Henderson, Earl "the Pearl" Banks, Ruby "The Queen of Beale Street" Wilson, Patrick Dodd, Chris McDanielBrad Birkedahl, Vince Johnson and many, many others. Aside from the steep technical learning-curve that I've had to overcome, I'd say the next biggest challenge has been navigating the vicissitudes of musicians' schedules.  You really never know which show is going to be a good one, so I learned very quickly that you have shoot a lot of film at a lot of shows.  And when it comes to trying to schedule musicians for solid interview times... well, that's just a total crap-shoot.  The hardest thing so far, for me anyway, has been telling the musicians (many of whom are very close friends who I've known for many years) that their participation in this project has to be a favor to me, that is, not for pay.  I hate that more than anything.

As this is my first foray into film-making, I can't help but say that this whole adventure has been really, incredibly exciting.  In fact, the only (non-academic) project I've ever undertaken that has excited me as much as this was my American Values Project last year.   And, to be honest, I wouldn't really count either of those projects as "non-academic," technically speaking, though I'm sure I'll find detractors on that claim.  The one thing I really regret is that we don't have at least one more person on our team, mostly because I wish someone could film our filming.  So, so many of the very best moments have happened after I've turned my camera off and the musicians have come over, sat down and just hung out with me off-camera.  What I wouldn't give to have had even a fraction of those conversations on film!  (GAH!)  At any rate, I did manage to capture this one (below), one of my favorite moments during a set-break with Archie "Hubby" Turner, who I've known for almost twenty years now and who was clearly hamming it up for the camera at the moment.  This is a good indication of what happens when we go off-record and which makes me wish everything was on-record.



And here's just a short, random outtake from our footage, featuring Blind Mississippi Morris.  Who knows if or where this will fit into the final cut, but it's at least something that can give you an idea of what our film will look like. In the coming weeks, I'll try to post more about this still-untitled project as it develops, so stay tuned!  

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 7: A Film With Your Favorite Soundtrack

For today's pick I'm making a somewhat ticky-tack distinction between a film "soundtrack" and a film "score."  My favorite film score is definitely Ennio Morricone's composition for The Mission, one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music ever written as far as I'm concerned.  I picked The Mission on Day 1 of this Challenge, though, and (according to the rules) I can't pick it again.  There are lots of other film scores that are iconic and that I love-- Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars immediately come to mind-- but I've decided to stick to the details of today's prompt and choose a soundtrack instead.

As it turns out, my soundtrack pick for today is also from one of my favorite films.  There isn't a prompt for "favorite music film that is not a concert film," unfortunately, but if we ever resurrect this Challenge again, I'm definitely adding that category.  And if we ever add that category, The Commitments (1991) would be a top contender for my pick.  The Commitments tells the story of a bunch of hardscrabble Irish musicians who set out to form the "World's Hardest Working Band" and  bring soul music to the people of Dublin.  It's got all of the drama that real-life bands have, it's got a incredibly talented cast of actor/musicians and, most importantly for today's prompt, it's got Andrew Strong.  Son of Irish soul singer Rob Strong, Andrew Strong plays the lead singer in the film.  And MAN OH MAN CAN HE SING.  He was only 16 years old when he was cast for the lead role in The Commitments, but his voice sounds at least 65 rough-and-raw years older than that.  I have a few friends from Dublin and I've often told them that the way they talk about their hometown reminds me a lot of how I talk about Memphis. Maybe our two towns are soul siblings.

It would be easy to believe that The Commitments soundtrack was recorded by a bunch of Memphis performers.  The tracks are all soul classics-- "Mustang Sally," "Take Me To The River," "Try A Little Tenderness," "Mr. Pitiful"-- many of them originally recorded by Memphis artists right here in Memphis.  Almost all of them are every bit as good as the originals, and I daresay that a couple might even be better than the originals.  (Andrew Strong's version of "Dark End of the Street" is maybe my favorite version of that classic.)   At any rate, if you haven't heard The Commitments soundtrack, it's a must-add to your iTunes library.  And if you haven't seen the film, please do yourself a favor and correct that deficit post haste.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 6: A Film That Reminds You Of A Certain Event

Like yesterday, I found today's prompt for the 31 Day Film Challenge really difficult.  I can think of dozens of songs that remind me of certain events in my life, but I had to think long and hard to come up with a film that did the same.  (I'll just refer you to my explanation from yesterday as to why I think that is.)  For one thing, it's really difficult to determine what counts as an "event."  Things like weddings and graduations and births of children and the like-- that is, most of the things that we mark as "events" in our lives-- are only privately "eventful."  Of course, there are plenty of films about historically, and therefore generally, "eventful" events, but choosing one of those films seemed contrary to the spirit of today's prompt.   However, when I finally did arrive at my selection for today, I definitely had one of those aha! moments.  It seemed immediately apposite and it made instantly clear to me what the film-to-event association was supposed to accomplish.   

The problem is, making that association explicit was going to require some serious finesse. So here goes, with all the finesse of which I am capable.

My pick for today is the 2004 comedy Saved! (starring Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin), which reminds me of my first couple of years in college.  Saved! actually takes place in a high school, but it's an evangelical Christian high school.  My first two years of college were spent at a Christian college, which was small, denominational, residential and evangelical, so it might as well have been a high school.  The film is meant to be a parody, I think, though like all great parodies, the ring of truth in it is deafeningly true.  Saved! tells the story of a student who gets pregnant and subsequently becomes ostracized and demonized by her cohort for her wicked ways.  While not exactly an identical experience-- for the record, I was not and have never been pregnant-- my similarly wicked ways in my first two college years got me similarly ostracized and demonized.  In fact, they got me kicked out of the College.  (Technically, I "dropped out," but only after having been given the option of dropping out or being dis-enrolled.  It was pretty much one of those you can't fire me, I quit! situations.)  My last few months there were some of the most miserable times of my entire life, before or since, and that place very nearly broke me as a person.  But I was young enough, resilient enough, and stubborn enough to survive it, so now when I look back on that time I think of it as deeply formative instead of wretched.  I am aboslutely positive that, for better or worse, I would not be the person I am today without that experience. 

At the same time, I wouldn't wish that experience on my worst enemy.

To be fair, I also had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends in my first couple of years of college, as all new students do.  Even though my memory of those years and that place is troubled, it is not wholly negative.  I think what I would say at this point in my life is that that place and those people provided me a sort of demonstration-by-counterexample of the kind of person I wanted to be.  Not in every way, of course, because I really do believe that most of them were (and, I trust, still are) genuinely good people.  But, to be honest, many of them were "good people" in the way that your viciously racist, but otherwise kind and generous, grandparents are good people.   It's been almost 20 years now, so I think the intervening shifts in moral, cultural and political sensibilities make it far less likely that I would have the same experiences today as I did then.  (In fact, as someone who interacts every day with young college students just like I was back then, I'm quite positive that my students have it much easier.)  Still, the short-sighted and overly-confident judgment, the lack of compassion, the blind insularity, the group-think, the pettiness and the real meanness that I experienced as a very young and very naive 17- and 18-year old, which is funny in a film but not at all so in real life, is something that I will never forget.  I don't harbor any resentments about it anymore, but it took a long, long time to get to that place. 

For the record, I went on to have more than my share of really great college experiences, and even a whole lot of extra ones in graduate school, so I don't feel like I missed out on anything in the grand scheme of things.  In fact, my terrible two years at the Christian college were probably, in the end, a net gain in terms of life-experiences. They provided me a host of really tough, but really invaluable, lessons.  I'll never forget the feeling I had driving away from that place, after having been kicked out of college and my home, on my way to Boston, with everything I owned in my car, with seventy-five dollars to my name, with no one to call for help and with a totally dubious plan that amounted to not much more than chasing after someone I thought I might love.  What a monumentally stupid 18-year-old thing to do.  But that was the beginning of learning who I was, what I could accomplish, what I could survive and how to get by in the world on my own. 

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, after all.

Friday, July 05, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 5: A Film That Reminds You of Someone

First, I want to say that it's been really great seeing everyone's 31 Day Film Challenge picks show up each day on the Facebook page for our Challenge. I've got a lot of new movies to watch.

Today's pick was surprisingly difficult for me.  There was a similar prompt on Day 5 of the original version of the 30 Day Song Challenge and I had plenty of ideas for that one, but for some reason it's been much harder to pick a film that reminds me of a person than it was to pick a song that did the same.  I'm not sure why that is.  My best guess goes something like this:  the stories that are told in cinema (and the characters that populate those stories) have a kind of independence that songs don't have.  That is, films seem to resist our manipulation more than songs do.  It's harder to substitute the events and people of our own experience for the films' events and characters without deeply distorting the integrity of the film, something that is very easy to do with songs, I think.  For today's prompt, I didn't want to simply pick a film that "reminded me of someone" because I had seen that particular movie with that particular person several times, or because that movie was that person's favorite or least favorite.  I wanted to pick a film in which the content of the film itself reminded me of the content of my relationship with someone.  Or something like that, anyway.

My pick for today is the 1969 Paul Newman and Robert Redford classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the story of two bank robbers on the lam.  Butch and Sundance, leaders of the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, find that the passage of time and the rapid civilization of the formerly-"wild" west is making it more and more complicated for them to engage in their wayward profession.  When they happen to rob the wrong train on the wrong day, a special posse of lawmen  begin tracking the two bandits.  In a series of too-close calls, the pair manage to escape capture throughout by virtue of some combination of haphazard luck, clever charm, half-witted planning and pure adventureButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a classic "buddy film," and I'd dare to say that there are precious few buddies in the history of film as perfectly matched as Newman and Redford are in this one. The real heart of the film unfolds in the friendship of its two protagonists-- Butch is all ideas, Sundance is all pistols and cojones--  and as terrible as they are for one another, one can't help but fall in love with whatever little blip in the cosmic order joined their lives together. 

That's just like the relationship between my fellow-bandida Elizabeth ("E") and me.  I particularly love this picture of the two of us together (left), in no small part because it looks like we're on the lam.  Which, to be honest, we probably were in some way, metaphorical or literal.  E and I are the very best and the very worst with each other and, just like Butch and Sundance, we're also the very best and the very worst for each other.  I once said of E that, if we had never become friends, I would have never gotten into half of the trouble I've been in... but I also would've missed out on the lion's share of fun that I've had.  I think everyone needs one of those friends who you can call and know with absolute confidence that, no matter how hare-brained or dangerous or ill-advised the plans you propose, your friend is going to be game.  Bonus points if you can count on her to one-up your stupid plans with a "let's have a drink first!" or some other perfectly terrible amendment.  I also think it's important for everyone to have a friend who you've gotten in to real trouble with, who has dragged you home in the wee hours and put you to bed, who you have bailed out (literally or metaphorically) more than once, who shares with you a secret volume of strictly entre nous stories, who will both put up with your sh*t and call you out on it.  I have never laughed (or cried) as hard with anyone as I have with E, and if I had to pick one friendship of mine that would make for a "buddy film" as excellent as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it would be ours.  No question.  Full stop. 

E and I were definitely cut from the same cloth.  We're both rule-breakers, by constitution, and we don't even require good reasons to break the rules most of the time.  Nothing much more than just the adventure of doing so, to be honest.  We're also both "big ideas" people.  Sometimes those ideas are awful, more often they're great, but almost always they're bigger than we are and much more difficult to execute than anything we should reasonably undertake.  We both tend toward excess, in both good things (love, laughter, adventure) and bad things (danger, risk and conflict).  We're straightforwardly, sometimes brutally, honest with one another, but we don't hold grudges and we don't judge one another beyond the particular circumstances of a specific infraction.  Like Butch and Sundance, we've had the good fortune of more lucky escapes than we've earned. But we've earned our way out of plenty of tight spots, too, with a combination of charm, pluck, wit and cleverness.  And, just like Butch and Sundance, I'm positive that if the day ever comes when E and I find ourselves cornered, trapped, without escape, surrounded by the (literal or metaphorical) deputies who've hunted us down and want our hides, well...

You can bet your bottom dollar that we're going down together and with guns blazing.

 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 4: A Film That Makes You Sad

Psychology researchers James J. Gross and Robert W. Levenson published a study about 15 years ago entitled "Emotion Elicitation Using Films" in which they determined that the "saddest" movie of all time was the 1978 tearjerker The Champ (starring Jon Voight and a very young Ricky Schroder).  In particular, Gross and Levenson determined that this scene from The Champ could reliably elicit sadness-- and, quite often, real human tears-- from almost all of their subjects.   (Stop reading for a moment and watch that scene.)  Now, it's hard to argue with the claim that a precious, vulnerable, eight-year-old bawling Ricky Schroder, begging his recently-deceased father to come back to life, doesn't genuinely rend the human heart.  But that sort of weeping, wailing and gnashing-of-teeth sadness is only one kind of sadness. And I'm not sure that, for me anyway, it's the saddest kind of sadness.

No one likes to feel pain or hurt or sadness, of course, but I'm of the opinion that acute pain is almost always preferable to chronic pain, just like injuries or illnesses with an identifiable source are preferable to mysterious, unlocatable and unexplained ones.  Similarly, films that reach inside and rip out my heart, but which allow me full view of their approach and assault, as well as the truly pleasurable experience of a cathartic cry after they have had their way, are not the saddest films.  They may be more intensely sad, but their blow is swift and sure and recognizable, even when it is cruel.  On the other hand, there is a different ilk of sad films, ones that burrow inside of you secretly and plant a seed of sadness that not only doesn't initially hurt, but doesn't even seem to be there.  When you leave the cinema, though, the seed begins to take root.  It draws nourishment from the deeply-embedded experiences of its host, it feeds on those subconscious nutrients like a parasite, and it grows.  You, the ignorant and unwilling host, find yourself a little emotionally sore and achy, a little psychologically cloudy and depressed, though you can't quite locate the where or wherefore of the pain.  It's not even pain, really, just a kind of dull sadness that hurts not quite enough to complain about but enough to keep the sunshine at bay.

My pick for today is a sad film of that sort, the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.  It's a slow, subtle, incredibly sensitive treatment of the kind of quiet desperation that we feel when we are lost and want to be found, when we are lonely and cannot find companionship, when we feel we have something to say and lack the language to communicate it, when we are not at home in the world, when everything seems foreign, and when we feel, deeply and existentially, as if we are lost in translation.  This is not a film that will make you cry, I don't think.  In fact, it will make you laugh, several times, but with an uneasy kind of laughter, the "ah well, might as well laugh" kind.  The relationship between the two lost, quietly desperate and longing protagonists in this film is sweet and episodically satisfying, but it is not deeply satisfying.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.  Theirs is a connection that is accidental, inessential and peripheral, which serves as a temporary salve for an abiding hurt. The fleeting happiness that they experience together is, in large part, a consequence of those accidental, temporary conditions.  We viewers are fortunate enough to participate in that brief respite along with them, but as we laugh and coo and settle into the warm and fuzzy, Lost in Translation has already begun planting its seed of sadness.

You won't feel it immediately. You may even have to give this film a week or so before you can accurately assess its emotional impact. But eventually, maybe on the second or third viewing, a gentle but powerful wave of sadness will wash over you.  That sadness will not be crushing or devastating, but it will be real and really, deeply poignant. 

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 3: A Film That Makes You Happy

Most people who know me also know of my unabashedly-fangirl affection for the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body, which tells the story of an endurance contest in which roughly two dozen small-town Texans compete to win a Nissan hardbody truck. The concept is simple, really: everyone puts his or her hand on the prize at the start of the contest, and the last one standing with a hand on the truck gets to drive it home. The contestants are allowed a 5 minute break every hour and a 15 minute break every sixth hour. They can't lean, they can't sit or squat, they can't have anyone else stand in for them at any time and, most importantly, they can't ever, not even for a second, take their hand off the truck.

I know what you're thinking. How hard can that possibly be? 

But here's the thing: the 1995 version of the contest, which is the subject of this documentary, lasted for SEVENTY-SEVEN CONSECUTIVE HOURS. That's more than three straight days and nights, people. Without sleep. Without a shower. With very little movement. Standing the entire time. Concentrating on a task so mind-numbingly quotidian-- keep your hand on the truck-- that it becomes exponentially easier to screw it up with every passing hour.  After the first day and night of the contest passes, the contestants are already in pretty severe physical pain.  By the middle of the second day, the ones who stick around feel their bodies begin to numb from sleeplessness, exhaustion, stiffness and soreness, the unrelenting Texas summer heat.  For those who make it to the third day, and into the third night, the mind begins to betray, the mental strain morphs into delirium.  They're faltering, they're suffering, they're hallucinating, some of them are having conversations with God.  But this is Texas and there's a brand-new Nissan hardbody on the line, so God is offering them no respite.

Why does this film make me happy?  Because it captures almost everything great and small that I love about the curious sort of talking-apes that we call humankind. The way we dream.  The way we keep on believing even after there is no longer reason to do so, by force of will alone.  The way we push ourselves beyond the limits of the poor, weak bodies we're given to navigate and suffer this world.  The way we me friends of and with each other, inspire and are inspired by each other, challenge and support each other.  The imaginative, ingenious, thoroughly committed way that we set projects for ourselves, even absolutely insane ones like the Hands on a Hard Body Contest.  The way we overcome.  And above all, the way we can make art of it.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 2: Your Least Favorite Film

I just want to say in advance that I don't think my pick for today is the worst movie ever made.  I took a peek at what Wikipedia lists as "the worst films ever made" (allegedly determined by "reputable critics in multiple reputable sources") and discovered that I had not seen a single one of them.  That surprised me a little, because it just so happens that my very first job was for Memphis' local theater chain, MALCO.  I began working there literally the day after I was old enough to hold a job, at 16 years old, and I stayed with MALCO on and off for about five years.  I started as concessionaire shoveling fresh popcorn, worked my way up to an usher shoveling stale popcorn, then a ticketbooth cashier, then a projectionist, and  eventually an Assistant Manager.  Even after I started college, I would still come back and work in the theater for weekends, summers and holidays to make some extra spending money.  In the grand scheme of things, working in a movie theater is not a great job to have, but it's a pretty great job to have when you're in your teens and early-20's, before you move on to the more-profitable but truly crappy restaurant grind. The downside of working in a movie theater is that you work when everyone else plays (nights, weekends, and holidays), but the upside is that you get to see what goes on behind the curtain of one of our culture's last remaining truly magical spaces. You also, of course, get to see all the movies.

So, for many years, I saw everything that came out in the theaters, free of charge and (frequently) not all in one sitting. Without a doubt, that's where my love of cinema was born. Not just my love of movies, but my love of the whole experience of cinema.  A long time ago, though, I gave up trying to sit through genuinely terrible films-- around the same time that I gave up trying to finish genuinely terrible novels-- so I don't think I can say that I've ever seen a truly awful movie all the way through.  My pick for today isn't the worst ever, it's just my least favorite movie right now, mostly because it errs in several ways that are critically damning. 

I'm picking the 2011 version of Arthur as my least favorite film at the moment.  Why?  Oh, let me count the ways...

FIRST STRIKE:  Arthur (2011) is a remake of a film that was already perfect and should have never been re-made.  If you haven't seen the original Arthur (1981), starring Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli and John Gielgud, you're missing out on one of the funniest films ever.  Dudley Moore's comic brilliance as Arthur in the original version is an unrepeatable performance, the kind of performance that makes an actor synonymous with his character.  Why, oh why, anyone ever thought that could be repeated is an offense to good taste.

SECOND STRIKE:  As critic David Hiltbrand once said, the first rule of remaking a popular film is: "Do no harm to the original."  Arthur (2011) not only plunges a jagged, rusty shiv through the heart of the original, but it has no heart of its own.  It's all sad, lame, cheap, pathetic even, slapstick. To be fair, I'm not entirely sure Arthur (2011) can be blamed for this error, as it's almost impossible to make an endearing or sympathetic film about a self-destructive drunk anymore.  Those sorts of characters inspire only pity and judgment nowadays, not affection.  But the original Arthur was something different and something lovable, a character quite common in the first half-century of film but one that has not survived the passage of time and the vicissitudes of moral and cultural change very well.  The original Arthur is an irrecoverable relic now, something that I've discussed before on this blog as "the fun and funny drunk," and which I'm not sure contemporary cinema has been able to replace or reproduce. 

THIRD STRIKE:  The remake of Arthur really does a disservice to two otherwise quality actors, Russell Brand and Helen Mirren, and that error is TOTALLY the fault of the film.  And that error should not be excused.  Brand can be clownish, to be sure, but he has a rapier-like comic wit and impeccable comic timing that, when deployed effectively, is near-genius.  (See his recent turn in the only-otherwise-ok film version of Rock of Ages.)  Helen Mirren, on the other hand, is a bona fide cinematic icon.  I can only assume that she was herself engaging in some variation of self-destructive drunk behavior when she made the very terrible decision to try and one-up John Gielgud as Hobson.  Also, I can only hope her agent was summarily axed after giving her the green light for this project. 

There are more strikes that this film commits, but I won't go into them here.  I will say, though, that it's possible I dislike this film as much as I do because it's a remake of a film that I really, truly adore. But I genuinely do think this is an awful movie on its own merits, or rather demerits, as is a more appropriate designation of this film's many, many errors.

Monday, July 01, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 1: Your Favorite Film

One thing I learned from my participation in the 30 Day Song Challenges (the Original and the Sequel) is that I almost always second-guess my selections the very day after I pick them.  I've pretty much resigned myself to that phenomenon now and so, instead of laboring for hours and hours to be certain of my pick, I've decided that it's best just to go with my gut instincts.  To wit, the very first film that came to mind when I read this morning's prompt was the 1986 film The Mission, directed by Roland Joffé, scored by Ennio Morricone, and starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. The Mission is by far one of the most beautiful films ever made, both its cinematography and its soundtrack are nothing short of sublime.  The story is epic, sweeping, world-historical.  It's got an all-star cast, in some of the best performances of their careers, and it manages to capture both the grand themes and the subtle nuances of truly timeless moral, religious and political questions in just barely over two hours.  This is definitely the film that I most often say is my "favorite film," and whenever I see another film that I think is amazing, I almost always ask myself whether or not I think it's as good as The Mission

The Mission tells the story of an 18th C. Jesuit Reduction, which were settlements established throughout Latin America as a part of the complicated strategy of the Spanish Empire to govern the indigenous peoples of its colonies.  In this story, Spanish Jesuits are trying to protect a remote South American Indian tribe from falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal by building a mission.  Robert De Niro plays Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary and slave trader with a quick temper and an even quicker blade, who is given reason to reexamine his trade and commitments after accidentally killing his brother in a sword fight.  Mendoza retires to a Jesuit monastery to seek penance, where he is offered such by the young, idealistic Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who insists that Mendoza travel to the mission they are building above the falls literally carrying the tools of his former life on his back.  Father Gabriel and Mendoza work together to build the mission and secure relationships with the
Guaraní who live there, but when the mission comes under attack, they part ways with regard to how their moral obligation to protect the mission and its inhabitants is to be executed.  Mendoza wants to fight, Father Gabriel cannot.  

The larger story of this film is the ugly story of European colonialism, of slavery, of the political ambitions of the Church and the religious manipulations of the State, of the violent and bloody decimation of indigenous peoples and cultures like the Guaraní in the 18th century, and of the formation of the now-sedimented and deeply-dividing line between the global North and South.  The smaller story of this film is the story of iniquity and penance, of one man's need to make right what he has done wrong, and his realization of how precious little the world around us is willing to aid in our search for exculpation.  Is justice achieved with the heart or the sword?  Can mercy ever trump power?  Does purgation require vindication?  Are we our brothers' keepers?

In one particularly powerful scene, the conniving and amoral slave-trader Hontar tries to assuage the conscience of his superior Altamirano, an emissary from the Pope in Rome, by providing him reason to diavow personal responsibility for the inhumanity around them.  Hontar says:: "We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus."  To which Altamirano replies, "
No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world... thus have I made it." 

The Mission could very easily be mistaken for a theodical film.  But it isn't so.  It is a film about the world we have made, you and I have made, not the world that God made. For that reason, perhaps above all others, it remains my favorite film.

31 Day Film Challenge: The Rules

Starting today, July 1, I'll be participating in the 31 Day Film Challenge on this blog.  It will be similar in structure to the 30 Day (The Sequel) Song Challenge that I just completed in June and the original 30 Day Song Challenge that I completed in June 2011, only this time with movies instead of music.  Several friends and I have constructed the prompt list and I've created a Facebook page for the Challenge, so I hope you'll join in.  If you have a blog, you can post every day about your picks like I do here, or you can post your picks on Facebook or Twitter. (On Facebook, be sure to tag your post with @31DayFilmChallenge.  On Twitter, you can use the hashtag #31DayFilmChallenge.)  These things are always more fun when more people participate, so please share with your friends and play along!

Here are the rules for the Challenge.  Each day of July you will pick a movie that goes along with that day's prompt (listed below).  You can post your selection along with a picture or clip or trailer from the film you choose.  Here's the thing, though, you need to have 31 different movies by the end of the month, so DON'T PICK THE SAME MOVIE TWICE DURING THE WHOLE MONTH.  You don't have to actually watch the movie on the day you pick it-- that would be asking a little much for a fun social media Challenge-- but you should only pick movies that you've actually seen all the way through at least once.  It's perfectly fine to just post the prompt and your selection every day, but it's a lot more fun if you say something more about the hows and whys of your picks.

Below is the list of prompts for each day.  It's important to do them in order and make sure you're on the correct day (so, Day 1 would be posted on July 1, Day 2 would be posted on July 2, etc.), so that way everyone is posting about the same type of film on the same day.

If you plan to play along, I'd love it if you left a comment in the comment section below so that I can keep up with your picks.  I'm really looking forward to reading what everyone has to say and, hopefully, discovering some great new films along the way.  Enjoy!

Day 1- Your favorite film
Day 2- Your least favorite film
Day 3- A film that makes you happy
Day 4- A film that makes you sad
Day 5- A film that reminds you of someone
Day 6- A film that reminds you of a certain event
Day 7- A film with your favorite soundtrack
Day 8- A film that you can quote a line from
Day 9- The best documentary film
Day 10- A film from your favorite Director
Day 11- The best sports film
Day 12- A film with your favorite actor/actress
Day 13- A film with your least favorite actor/actress
Day 14- A film that you used to love but now hate
Day 15- The best horror film
Day 16- A film that you totally didn't "get"
Day 17- The most beautiful scene in any film
Day 18- The worst script in any film
Day 19- The first film you saw in a theater
Day 20- The best political film
Day 21- The film that not only changed the way you saw cinema, but the way you saw the world
Day 22- The film you should like, but don’t
Day 23- The funniest film you’ve ever seen
Day 24- Your “guilty pleasure” film
Day 25- The film that makes you want to be a filmmaker
Day 26- The film that should have never had a sequel
Day 27- A film from your childhood
Day 28- Your “perfect date” film
Day 29- A film that you will never tire of
Day 30- The “smartest” film you’ve seen
Day 31- The “perfect” film